Toward the end of last season, the senior circuit’s Central division possessed a bit of pizzazz often missing from its ho-hum Midwestern self. The majors’ most exciting hard-throwing tub o’ lard, C.C. Sabathia, gave the Brewers a pair of fat asses with personality. The Northsiders, not a team to be outdone (or outspent) as of late, nabbed themselves an even better arm for the rotation in Rich Harden, who gives up hits about as frequently as the Cubs play in the Fall Classic. The Redbirds, the last Central team to earn a trip to the Series, featured the game’s best player vying for his second batting crown, which he missed out on despite hitting .357, and his second MVP Award, which he won by a significant margin. The Reds, meanwhile, tanked in the second half under new skipper Dusty Baker, but did so in style, showcasing a plethora of young talent. The Astros, by comparison, were led by a cast of veterans to the best mark in the Central during the season’s final two months (36 wins against 18 losses). And the Pirates, well, they sucked even worse than usual after trading their veteran talent to the east coast. Every division needs a punching bag.
This year, the Central looks to earn its first back-to-back wild card team since 2005, when the Astros captured their second straight wild card berth with a mere 89 wins. More importantly, five Central teams will attempt to maintain pace with the Cubs, who have been handed the division crown by the preseason media. Here’s a quick rundown of what to expect from this year’s N.L. Central teams, which may collectively lack some of last year’s celebrity (with the departure of Sabathia, Kerry Wood, Jason Bay, Ben Sheets, and, of course, Cesar Izturis), but have made up for it by keeping Aaron Miles in-house and cornering the market on speedy outfielders who frequently fail to reach base (Joey Gathright and Willy Taveras).
So the Cubs didn’t trade for Jake Peavy. Cry me a river. The Pirates’ big offseason arms acquisition was a pair of cricket players from India. How’s that for perspective? The darlings of the Central look good on paper. But the team’s aggressive offseason acquisitions were risky — bestowing a fat contract upon Ryan Dempster following a career year, ponying up the cash for the volatile Milton Bradley, and replacing Wood with an inferior closer in Kevin Gregg — and the team failed to acquire a suitable leadoff hitter who could free up Alfonso Soriano to move down in the order. For the Cubs, much hinges on the success and maturation of their pen, as it is the team’s one glaring question mark.
The Brewers appear poised to take a big step back following the offseason defection of stars Sheets and Sabathia. But a good deal of that loss could be absorbed by the emergence of a pair of young hurlers, Yovani Gallardo and Manny Parra. The pen is likely to proffer up crooked numbers with regularity, which will place an awful lot of pressure on the Central’s second-best lineup to produce daily. If — and this is a huge, Prince Fielder-sized if — Rickie Weeks can finally remain healthy and put it all together for an entire season, the Brew Crew’s lineup will be among the league’s best, with plus power at seven slots. Still, there are plenty of concerns on the pitching side of the equation, and too many former Cardinals castoffs (Jeff Suppan, Braden Looper) in the rotation.
Lance Berkman and Carlos Lee are among the best 3–4 hitters in the N.L. But other than Hunter Pence, the balance of the Astros lineup leaves little to whet the appetite. Old Reliable, Roy Oswalt, anchors a fairly pitiful rotation that will hope for a breakout season from a man named Wandy. The pen makes me vomit a little in my mouth. Next.
ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
When a team’s notable offseason moves include signing Kyle Lohse to a four-year contract and trading for a starting shortstop who hit .213 last season, it doesn’t have much to hang its hat on in the bolster-its-fans’-confidence department. The team that will host this year’s All Star Game has its work cut out for it, what with an outfielder, Skip Schumaker, starting at second base, a rookie or two at third base (Troy Glaus is out indefinitely), and another rookie at closer. Of the position players who made the Opening Day roster, only four have more than 1,200 career at-bats, and one of those is backup catcher Jason LaRue. Gulp. The good news: Chris Carpenter threw pain free in the spring and allowed just four earned runs in 23-plus innings while striking out 17. Cardinal Nation holds its breath.
The play of youngsters Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, and Chris Dickerson allowed the Reds to wave goodbye to Ken Griffey Jr., then Adam Dunn. This year’s offensive squad is a young one and will rise and fall as the kids learn on the job. Shortstop Alex Gonzalez is back after a bum knee ended a fine campaign in 2007. The rotation features more potential in the arms of Edinson Volquez, who quietly won 17 games last season and struck out more than 200 batters, and Johnny Cueto. I like the pen, led by veterans Francisco Cordero, David Weathers, and Arthur Rhodes. Still, Walt Jocketty and Dusty Baker find themselves counting on the continued development of several prospects, which typically means mixed results.
Adam (the bad one) and Andy (the worse one) LaRoche may be the most uninspiring brotherly duo to play in the bigs since Faye and Marv Throneberry. Of course, they have to live in the shadow of Chris and Shelley Duncan, J.D. and Stephen Drew, Jason and Jeremy Giambi, B.J. and Justin Upton, and the Hernandez Bros. They’re no Aaron and Bret Boone. No Joey and Alex Cora. No Catching Molina Brothers. No Delmon and Dmitri. No Jeff and Jered. No Prentice and Tike. Can you tell that I don’t want to write about this team? They stink. There’s some potential for a scrappy offense, but I wonder if this pitching staff, which struggled mightily last season, can keep runs off the board.